The Decemberists – As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again

Intellectual Oregonians cram two decades of tricks into four-sided ninth LP

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It’s a bold statement, 24 years into your career, to label an album your band’s best, as Colin Meloy, the songwriter behind The Decemberists, has described As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again. Assembled with the vinyl revival in mind – fitting across four “sides”, each with a distinct sonic feel – it’s an album that riffs on over two decades’ worth of operatic literary references, shape-shifting indie-folk whimsy and prog-rock experimentation, offering sonic easter eggs to long-term fans while both charming and bamboozling newcomers to their world.


In 2020, the Portland-based five-piece – Meloy, multi-instrumentalists Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen – were poised for a celebratory 20th-anniversary year. The band, Meloy in particular, were exhausted from promoting 2018’s I’ll Be Your Girl: the John Congleton-produced album was written amid the turbulence of the 2016 US Presidential election, and reliving that despair onstage every night (sample lyric: from “Everything Is Awful”, “What’s that crashing sound following us around?/It’s the sound of all things good breaking”) had taken a toll. An anniversary tour was ultimately cancelled, and their 2022 live re-emergence (titled, in true Decemberists style, “Arise From The Bunkers!”) featured no new material, pulling as heavily from 2011’s The King Is Dead and 2006’s arguable career peak The Crane Wife as from their most recent release.


Meloy had written throughout lockdown: another children’s book and his first adult fiction book; a soundtrack for the film adaptation of Wildwood, based on the series of YA fantasy novels by Meloy and his illustrator wife Carson Ellis; a theatrical project “still in too much of a development stage to talk about”. Writing to these specific directions unblocked something, and by the time The Decemberists were ready to work on new material together Meloy had a notebook of song fragments ready for the band to explore.

The finished work is a smorgasbord of all of their best bits: deceptively upbeat indie-rockers “Burial Ground” and “Oh No!”; haunted folk tales like “Long White Veil” and “Don’t Go To The Woods”; the languid and lovely “Never Satisfied” in which hustle culture loses out to the simple pleasures of wasting time and watching the sunrise; at least one lyric that uses the word “rumpus”. And, taking up a full side of vinyl, and perversely released as the lead single, the 19-minute prog-rock masterpiece “Joan In The Garden”, inspired by artistic and literary depictions of Joan of Arc’s hallucinatory visitations. It’s the longest song The Decemberists have recorded: 2004’s “The Tain” only managed 18 and a half.

Roughly sequenced as four sonic “islands”, it’s an album that, when experienced as intended, takes the listener on an emotive journey: through whimsical to maudlin, tender and jocular and just plain weird. The band sound like a group of long-term collaborators cutting loose and having fun: Funk’s jangly guitar and Moen’s dancing drums combining with giddy backing vocals from James Mercer of The Shins to turn the ending of “Burial Ground” into a darkly humorous punchline; layers of additional brass and percussion giving “Oh No!” the cadence of a night at the circus. “The Reapers” sneaks in a reference to a character “born in a brothel”, like a tip of the hat to early deep cut “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist”. “William Fitzwilliam”, described by Meloy as a “pandemic fever dream” written while immersed in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is a tender character study that plays out like a sea shanty ghost-written by John Prine.


Shepherding them through all this detail is long-time co-producer Tucker Martine, who has worked on almost every Decemberists album since The Crane Wife. After the band abandoned an earlier attempt at self-production, Meloy and Martine reunited to effectively reverse-engineer the songs, stripping the best of an excess of material back to vocal-guitar demos and sketching in where the other parts might fit.

That approach, one of careful curation, extended even to the 19-minute album closer, despite its freewheeling feel. “Joan In The Garden” misdirects by taking what initially sounds like the riff from “Passenger Side” by Wilco and spinning it, stretching it and layering it with butchered vocal samples, funereal chimes, Query’s black metal bassline and ethereal backing “hosannah”s from REM’s Mike Mills. Bonkers, brilliant and completely without precedent, it’s The Decemberists themselves in miniature.

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Intellectual Oregonians cram two decades of tricks into four-sided ninth LPThe Decemberists - As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again